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Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019: business can no longer be as usual

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Live theatre, public assemblies and street games underline the actions-speak-louder-than-words message of the ’degrowth’ theme at this year’s event, says Lucy Bullivant 

The term ‘Degrowth’ means downscaling both production and consumption in ways that can increase wellbeing, as well as enhancing ecological and equitable conditions on planet Earth. Essentially making a better world in the face of interrelated challenges of global warming, climate change, social and economic inequality and newer patterns of migration.

’Degrowth’ first became influential in France during the 1970s in the aftermath of the Club of Rome report, The Limits to Growth. After 2008, when Paris hosted the first international ‘Degrowth’ conference, it became a fully fledged academic research area as well as a topic of global debate across civil society.

But can you make an exciting urban festival out of such an imperative?

That is perhaps the wrong question to ask in a city like Oslo – already a laboratory of active transition to a future free from the growth imperative, with architects and clients committed alike, for example, to recycling existing building stock across a wide range of typologies, and to specifying zero-emission concrete.

The 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale, Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth (which runs until 24 November) explores its pressing theme in various venues that have all seen a former life: a 19th-century bank repurposed as an architecture museum; a garage now a gallery; and two old power stations transformed into a policy think tank and a school of architecture and design.

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Source: OAT / Istvan Virag

Place listening, The Playground ROM

The triennale’s curators – architects Maria Smith and Matthew Dalziel of Interrobang; Phineas Harper (deputy director of London’s Architecture Foundation), and urban researcher and artist Cecilie Sachs Olsen – are calling time on excessive economic growth. They are advocating that we tell richer stories about liveable urbanism to show a more ethical and nuanced understanding of our cities.

‘What if the form of urban living was not productivity but play?’, asks Sachs Olsen who, with games specialist Nina Lund Westerdahl, designed Place Listening, an audio walk through the city of Oslo, expertly scripted and narrated by multiple voices. Starting at the ROM centre (Galleri ROM art + architecture), it invites, Situationist-style, a participant group of headset wearers to play games in the street, provoking fresh observations about the neighbourhoods it passes through.

Fun projects like this are countered well by necessarily formal enquiries by public assemblies. ‘Does the rushed development of cities pre-suppose a binary choice between keeping and letting go?’ is a hot topic at a student workshop hosted by the Oslo School of Architecture and Design and an incisive theme for student architects to be evaluating in a city that is in such a transition.

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Source: OAT

‘We should all be dreaming’

’Degrowth’ means doing more meaningful ‘making with’ fellow citizens (sym-poiesis, rather than auto-poiesis, as advocated by the curators’ favourite academic, Donna Haraway). Challenging the economic growth model means radical systemic and material change, forging multiple perspectives on the future. These are fully glimpsed by keeping eyes open and becoming more involved in civic action and democratic education – and self-education. Less focus on consumption; more on sharing resources and vigilance about corruption; nurturing symbiotic relationships as ways of finding alternatives to redundant development models.

The structure of the Triennale’s main exhibition, The Library, is a cost-effective 75 per cent recycling of the plywood structure of the museum’s exhibition on Snøhetta, installed without using glue. It provides a harmonious, uniform setting for the segments of The Library’s ‘collections’: subjects, objects, systems and the collective. Each is chock full of creditable ideas – including documented stories – promoting social and environmental justice, many with roots back to the 1960s when depletion of the Earth’s resources was strongly warned about.

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Source: OAT / Istvan Virag

‘Gisto multiplo’ at The Library, the National Museum

The heady and sobering mix includes a homage to the 1969 wake-up call that was And After Us, an exhibition in a tent staged by students at the Oslo School of Architecture, marking the beginning of questioning the growth-based economy, and a project inspired by the seminal 1972 Limits to Growth publication. The best ideas in The Library promote community ownership: Public Works’ 1:1 working compost heater, the Dugnad Days community centre project in Sletteløkka, a suburb of Oslo, a proposal for moving houses to better locations, waste management, and the Global Free Unit assisting local people into formal education and employment. Social movements, past and present, stem from real needs.

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Source: OAT / Istvan Virag

‘Power plant!’ by Public Works at The Library, The National Museum

Society under Construction, staged by theatre company Rimini Protokoll at the National Theatre, is another stand-out gem in the Triennale’s programme. This hard-hitting, two-hour live interactive performance debunks the myth that the cost, effort and ‘value’ of large-scale global construction projects justify their overt and covert iniquities in practice.

Dramatically staged narratives urge you to think more deeply about the systems and invisible global links by which construction operates. Weaving together five stories about corrupt practices and the lives of ordinary construction workers, Society under Construction unites guiding actors and audience members in groups on stage carrying out synchronised activities, including labouring on buildings, and learning martial arts to better forge legal contracts.

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Source: Benno Tobler

‘Rimini Protokoll: Society under Construction (State 2)’ by Stefan Kaegi, National Theatre

The open scenery enables participants to proceed between each staged story, free to observe others getting involved in construction rituals. There is some donning of appropriate head and hand gear and placing of building materials; as part of the sequence every group has the opportunity, in turn, to sit around the table of a construction hut, vying with global investors. Every now and then, fake banknotes cascade down from high scaffolding. Are these part-tempting, part-frustrating diversions items of value, or just more waste and irresponsibility?

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Source: OAT / Sverre Chr. Jarild

‘Rimini Protokoll: Society under Construction (State 2)’ by Stefan Kaegi, National Theatre

Tales of the unfinished Berlin Brandenberg airport, the never-ending A3 freeway project in Italy, a football stadium in Qatar, the Government quarter in Oslo, plus many others, reveal delayed completions and cost adjustments, and dysfunctional interdependencies between private and public stakeholders. The takeaway message is that these massive construction sites eerily model the post-democratic ways in which society is currently constituted.

The urgency of ‘degrowth’ chimes well with the sustainability trajectory that Oslo, and Norway more widely, has been following for more than a decade. Or far longer, if you consider that it got its first electric tram in 1894. Oslo is regarded as a role model of sustainable growth, having won the EU title of European Green Capital this year, beating 13 other cities.

It was in 2009 that Oslo established FutureBuilt, a coalition of 10 partners from local authorities, central government, the country’s green building council and architects’ association. Since 2016 the city is reckoned to have adopted one of the most ambitious climate strategies in the world, committing to cutting carbon emissions by 95 per cent by 2030 and a full-blown green transition in the construction industry. Fifty-two pilot projects across many typologies are FutureBuild’s strategy for changing the way Norway is developing its buildings and urban areas.

The benign value of central government ending its destructive environmental activities is poignantly conveyed in the triennale by Landscape Healing, an excellent cinematic documentary by British director Richard John Seymour with Bergen-based architects 3RW, screened at the DOGA centre, billed as ‘the largest act of rewilding in Norway’.

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Source: Richard John Seymour / 3RW Arkitekter

‘Landscape Healing’ by Richard John Seymour and 3RW Arkitekter

This is a massive clean-up of polluted urban areas of the country, freeing up more than 20,000ha of nature over a 13-year period. The clean-up squad has been the Norwegian army through its Defence Estates Agency, and their practice sites – a massive terra incognita for all citizens – were left full of unexploded ordnance and abandoned structures, severely damaged, with polluted soil and water and decimated biodiversity. This remarkable exercise, never before attempted, involved intense multidisciplinary teamwork by architects, historians, archaeologists, scientists, engineers, soldiers and politicians.

Playful, this messy business certainly was not, as the film shows. But enough Norwegian people at government level said enough was enough: and got stuck into radically changing ‘business as usual’. This year’s triennale is strong on the value of continued, responsible and far-reaching action over words alone.

The 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale runs until 24 November

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Genuinely wanted to learn more about degrowth as a concept. There is a real issue at its heart that challenges our understanding of market economics BUT ... what?

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